Composing in a Time of Violence: A Workshop & 2 Poems

By Eli Goldblatt

Eli in Maine_2For many years I have been concerned about how humans live with ambient violence. In some neighborhoods, violence regularly flares up on the streets or in classrooms or homes while in others violence is largely invisible or the artifact of TV, film, or YouTube viewing.   My early childhood was spent on US Army posts, where violence was distilled and represented by the commonplace presence of government guns and vehicles, what I call the “military sinew” of American culture.

Last year, Tom Fox asked me to do a workshop we titled “Teaching Writing in a Time of Mass Violence” for the National Writing Project conference.  We were concerned that teachers in many types of schools were dealing with students who had encountered images of war and terror and needed to sift through what they were seeing through writing.  I have since presented some version of this workshop in other settings.  After an appropriate warning about “triggering,” I start with a series of slides that suggest or indicate that violence or oppression, intimidation or senseless cruelty has been done or is about to happen in a public place.  I don’t show graphic details or gruesome scenes that may simply shock or provoke viewers. I ask people to free associate with each picture as it is briefly shown.  Once I show about 13-14 slides, I ask participants to go back through their words and choose, in each response to individual slides, 4-5 words that they think are memorable or particularly resonant for both sound and sense.  “Making sense” is less a priority than “making manifest”: the images are present for us, but their meaning may not emerge for a long time.  Then I ask people to assemble a poem of at least 8-10 lines, using the packets of words they generated, trying to keep the slide responses each as a unit but shuffling or shifting the units as they see fit.  The addition of articles or prepositions is allowed, but generally I discourage adding substantive new words.  I ask small groups of 5-8 participants to share poems, and then they choose 1-2 to share with the whole group.  This activity generates excellent discussion about teaching in an inclusive and supportive way that also allows for the range of possible responses—keeping in mind the possibility of “triggering” that can certainly be an issue for some students.

I include in this post 2 poems that reflect my own response to ambient violence.  Both were written independent of any workshop, but my ideas for the workshop in part come from my practice as a poet.

Salt in the Wound

Armored cars beyond the closed airport roll over

cracked dry pavement, the radio reporter says, &

cracked dry pavement, the radio reporter says, &

outside my kitchen a hidden bird hazards two quick

notes in dance beat & a twirl. Hummingbird drinks at the

feeder & next door the mom sets off with her kids to school

too late, too late. Time falls like this rain, & I remember

no opinion holds sway among wet lobed leaves of angel’s

trumpet.  Comfort to think there’s no plan; a mother can’t


intercede for her son painted above a church nave, within

a fiery lake or God’s bright triangle. In truth, neither frog

nor hawk stands a chance against a thresher, & no riot could

stop machines from gathering the harvest. Sometimes

everyone’s a real estate broker.  Don’t talk such nonsense,

little creeper with your cruel verbs, cramped handwriting,

preference for lists: beets & cherries, grilled pineapple,

smoked mozzarella, tomato slices topped with fresh basil

& kosher salt.  Soldiers love their MRAP transport,

high carriage & hardened steel underbelly

protecting riders from IEDs buried in the road.


Even before you wept

Even before you wept, you ate a meal

& sipped a blue-green solution that needed

neither heat nor light to turn rasping & impious,

elemental priorities sorted into enemy camps.

Foot soldiers sat by bonfires, cavalry bivouacked

beside their armored carriers. Birds sang in

the pre-dawn calm & anybody lucky enough to

remain asleep dreamed earthquakes splintered

pressure-treated lumber, rain filling streams

already clogged with anodyne silt, the weathered

statue at the top of a forested hill began to topple

& then fall headfirst into the ravine that had

been no more than a slender crevice between

two boulders just the night before.  I can smell

an acrid stew, hear protesters coming along

the ridge. Each holds a sign representing

the ache & candor you swallow in the

morning while the cats cry to be fed.



Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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